Departing Nepal and re-entering India on the bus, I was seated beside a goat. Bleating in the aisle, its hooves clicked and clacked on the floor as it tried to maintain its balance while we bounced and shook over the rocky road. The frightened animal stuck its head between its owner’s knees – a young boy leading it around with care on a rope – and refused to budge. I laughed and the boy smiled at me.
Back at Dhamma Bodhi, I was reunited with The King Brown where I showed him a few presents that I had bought him in Kathmandu at the only decent bike shop between Thailand and Turkey. He was particularly fond of his shiny, new hubs. We both agreed that we had not been spending enough time together and resolved to rectify the problem immediately. And where better to do so than on the Grand Trunk Road – that amazing length of life stretching from Kolkata to Kabul. As soon as my wheels pulled onto the shoulder of its smooth, concrete surface and I looked across its four enormous lanes to my right, separated in the centre by a tree-lined, concrete median, I knew that it was to become my ‘beloved GT Road.’
It was a perfect 20 degrees – the bright, energising sun making it feel just that little bit warmer. The traffic was light. The road, flat as a pancake, running between gorgeous fields of golden brown. An ever present fog made hazy silhouettes of distant farmhouses, trees, farmers and their beasts. The wind spoke barely above a whisper and when she did; her voice reached down into my shirt and kissed my chest, cooling it where beads of sweat had settled.
It felt good to be back on the road, despite it being strewn with carcasses of one kind or another; the legacy of Indian driving. Every day I would come across at least two separate sets of mangled trucks that sat crippled in the middle of the highway – their windows smashed, their bodies crumpled, their chassis’ incapacitated, their occupants surprisingly uninjured – while herds of slack-jawed gawkers looked on.
Far more frequent were the carcasses on some poor, lowly creature – opened up to be picked at by the crows. The mongrel dogs still lucky enough to be alive must have looked at the sacred cows and thought what a cruel world this is, ‘Here I am, hopping around on three legs, fighting for any scrap of food I can find while all of my mates and family have been turned into road rugs and these big, dumb oafs can take a nap in the middle of the highway if they like without a worry in the world.’ If only they had been born in any Western country where they would get two meals a day, regular baths and a blanket when it is cold, while the cows get a bolt through the head.
After three short days, I cycled over the mighty Ganges and entered one of the most ancient and holy cities in the world, which lies on her banks; Varanasi. I rattled my way over chaotic, red-brick roads and crawled through the narrow network of lively alleys adjacent to the river, just wide enough unfortunately, for motorbikes to squeeze, rev and honk their way between the tall, dark walls.
From the rear verandah of the compact guesthouse I had checked into, was an absolutely stunning view across the river to the enormous sandbar that faded in the dust under the light of the late afternoon. The greatest spectacle however, was to come when I drew my eyes back to land and looked along the seemingly endless tiers of stairs that stepped down and kissed the light brown water.
The famous Varanasi ghats are an eclectic display of life; dark boys play a game of skill using a stick and a small piece of wood; cute girls in dresses sell one rupee postcards to tourists; women bathe their bodies and wash their saris, spreading the amazingly long, bright cloths out on the steps to dry; old, bearded sadhus trudge along in orange robes with begging bowl and walking stick in hand; tourists try to make it ten steps without being approached, questioned – “Which country?”, “First time in India?” – and presented with some sales pitch or another; corpses are carried in off the streets to the burning ghats in a long, lively procession of drums, horns and singing; and cows, goats, buffalo, dogs and birds, intermittently scratch around for food and bathe, leaving large sloppy piles on the bronzed stairs.
Looking down from my perch, I knew instantly that I was somewhere special.
The energy from those steps, the great ever-changing mass of water they led down to and the maze of alleyways behind them, would hold me there for the next week and a half, after which I cycled just twelve kilometers further north and continued my unintentional Buddhist pilgrimage.
Sarnath is the place to which the Buddha traveled from Bodhgaya to preach his first sermon after attaining enlightenment. The relics of temples and stupas erected to commemorate the occasion, some dating back over 2,200 years, were uncovered only in the 19th century by British archaeologists and lie scattered in a peaceful park. Discovered and now the centrepiece of the first-class Sarnath Museum across the road, was perhaps the most breath-taking artifact I have ever seen; the famous ‘Lion Capitol’ that once stood atop a pillar erected by the great Emperor Ashoka as part of his bid to spread Buddhism throughout the empire and beyond. Under its mysterious coat of glaze, that seems not to have noticed the 22 centuries between its formation and today, the four lions of courage sit back to back, facing four different directions, all pervading, as Ashoka believed the Buddha’s presence to be. Mounted on a wall nearby are the remnants of the chakra or wheel of dhamma, that once stood over the lions and is now the centerpiece of the great ‘tri-colour’; the flag that is the pride of the nation.
I celebrated Christmas ’08 in the exact same manner that I had spent the six days prior; by waking at 4am, intermittently sitting and eating over the next 17 hours and going to bed exhausted. I had enrolled in my third vipassana course in as many months. Some may shout ‘overkill’ and by the second day, I would have had to agree with them. I realised that I had been falling back on the courses as boosters of concentrated dhamma and that I had to start to live dhamma day by day.
This was to be a valuable lesson, as I continued along my beloved GT Road.